Neem For Indoors, Outdoors, Ornamentals & Edibles
In February, I always feel relaxed about garden chores. There’s plenty of time, right? It’s kinda rainy, kinda windy, the weather will surely be nicer tomorrow… However, no sooner does the calendar page turn to March when suddenly, cherry trees are blooming, daffodils are trumpeting and minor bulbs are popping up everywhere. Less delightfully, so are aphids, both indoors and out. Dang! Last fall, I took cuttings of some favorite shrubs, including low growing California lilacs and several hardy fuchsias. They’ve been poking along happily all winter, keeping company in my unheated sun room with my lemon tree, some crazy-floriferous florist’s cyclamen, lemon thyme and an amazingly long-lived Italian parsley.
As I watered this weekend, I noticed some of the fuchsia foliage was looking peaky and realized that suddenly, aphids were everywhere. Dang again! Fortunately, I have a jarful of ladybugs in the fridge, so I misted everything and released a few of the sleeping beauty bugs. They’re already chowing down, but it turns out that my poor lemon tree is under attack by a barrage of bugs; aphids, scale and whiteflies. Ok, triple dang!
On Beyond Ladybugs
Once the usual washing (of leaves) and squashing (of bugs) proved inadequate, my solution was to enlist neem oil. Extracted from the nuts of the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), this powerful yet generally safe substance contains azadirachtin and related compounds (liminoids) that have an astonishing number of practical applications. Neem seed oil is anti-fungal and antibacterial and has been used to combat a wide range of plant pests for centuries in India, where residues of all parts of the neem tree are routinely added to garden composts and the crushed seed is considered a valuable soil amendment.
In India, every part of the neem tree is put to traditional uses. Neem leaves are used in analgesic teas and skin-soothing tinctures. Neem leaf powder, long used in folk remedies for cuts and abrasions, is now recognized as an effective antibacterial agent. Neem bark is incorporated into men’s and women’s body care products and cosmetics. Neem twigs are used like dental floss and neem extracts are often included in toothpastes, where they help fight cavity-causing bacteria. A few years ago, HIV researchers discovered that neem treatments will attack a protein the HIV virus needs in order to multiply, and further research may well turn up even more far-reaching uses.
Out Out Black Spot
Quickly biodegradable and nearly non-toxic (except in large doses) to mammals, neem oil can be used to repel plant pests or prevent many diseases. As hormone disruptors, Azadirachtin and those related liminoids act something like steroids. When insects eat treated foliage, the liminoids disrupt normal hormonal production, causing some insects to stop eating and interfering with reproduction and maturation in others. Since bees and other pollinators don’t eat foliage, they aren’t harmed, but neem sprays smother aphids, beetles, caterpillars, scale, spider mites, thrips and whiteflies. Given the broad range of potential targets, it’s obviously best to use neem sprays selectively and carefully to avoid wiping out the 97% of insects that are beneficial or benign.
In the garden, neem sprays also help to control disfiguring foliage diseases such as powdery mildew and black spot by smothering the causative pathogens. In my garden, a strict regimen of neem spraying eliminated black spot even on disease-prone roses like Angel Face (often nicknamed ‘Zit Face’). However safe this or any least-toxic pesticide may be, it is still important to use it respectfully. Neem oils can be used on garden herbs and vegetables, but swish vegetables, fruit, and leafy greens in warm water and food-safe soap and rinse well before serving.
Lemon Tree Emergency
As for the suffering lemon tree, I gently showered off the whole plant (no small feat), spraying both sides of the leaves to bump off the aphids. I then dabbed the stems and twigs with neem oil on cotton swabs to smother the scale insects that had appeared as if by magic. Where the heck do these things even come from? While I was at it, my granddaughter called my attention to a few tiny ants in the kitchen. A chat with my neighbor revealed that all the nearby homes get seasonal visits from odorous house ants. Nooooo! Been there, done that and definitely do not want to go through it again!!! After battling them for years at my former house, I refuse to host them here, so it’s off to find some boric acid ant traps….
A Lemony Lift
Since this may be the last time I get lemons from my troubled little tree, I wanted to make something memorable with them. I can’t think of anything more delicious than this zesty lemon pudding; it’s seriously tart, but you can adjust the flavor while the filling is still hot by adding sugar and/or butter to taste. You can also leave off the vanilla, but it does add a pleasantly floral note.
Seriously Lemon Pudding
1/2 cup (or more) cane sugar
tiny pinch sea salt
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
grated zest from 2-3 organic lemons
3 large eggs
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, sliced
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
1/2 cup chopped roasted pecans (or pistachios)
In a heavy bottomed sauce pan, combine the sugar, salt, lemon juice, lemon zest, and eggs and whisk to blend well. Add butter and bring mixture to a simmer over medium low heat, stirring frequently (especially pan edges). When mixture thickens, whisk constantly for one minute, then remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Spoon filling into a pretty bowl and sprinkle nuts on top. Serves at least one.